Inside An Artist-Led Campaign That Saved Goa's Biodiversity

Inside An Artist-Led Campaign That Saved Goa's Biodiversity
Image Courtesy: Amche Mollem

India is the host of 4 of the major biodiversity hotspots in the world — the Himalayas, the Indo-Burma region, the Sundaland and Nicobar Islands, and the oldest one among these, the Western Ghats. This long chain of rolling hills that stretch from Western India to Southern India along the west coast is as ancient as 150 million years old. It became a part of the west coast of India some 80 to 100 million years ago when it broke away from Madagascar and the Gondwana supercontinent. The Western Ghats are home to over one-third of all plants, mammals, fish, birds, and amphibian and reptile species found in India. It’s no surprise that this mountain range is fondly named ‘The Great Escarpment of India’.

Goa is an essential part of this chain because it lies between Maharashtra and Karnataka, linking the northern and southern stretches of forest. The Western Ghats of Goa broadly consist of the Wildlife Sanctuaries of Mhadei, Mollem, Netravali and Cotigao and a Bhagwan Mahavir National Park at Mollem. Goa presents an astonishing diversity of endemic species, habitats, and ecosystems. For historical reasons, the region remained relatively ‘undeveloped’ till fairly recently, and therefore appears to have suffered lesser than other ‘developed’ areas facing environmental damage. But 40 years of intensified economic activities in this region have noticeably become a threat to its biodiversity.

One of UNESCO’s eight hottest biodiversity spots in the world – the pristine green forests of the Mollem National Park and the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa faced the threat of losing 250 hectares of their protected land when on April 7, 2020, the Standing Committee for National Board of Wildlife, in the midst of the pandemic-induced lockdown in India, gave wildlife clearances to three linear infrastructure projects — the four-laning of a national highway, the double-tracking of a railway line and the laying of a 400kV transmission line.

While the local fight against these large-scale infrastructure projects began in early 2020, right after the announcement, the severity of the issue slowly gained prominence worldwide in mainstream media owing to social media efforts raising awareness about the subject. At the forefront of the movement were students and activists who took to the streets to hold the government accountable for their actions. Despite the strong opposition, the government decided to continue with the projects and the fight to protect Mollem built up a head of steam.

The biggest citizens’ movement that these 3 projects have given rise to is Amche Mollem or My Mollem, which was formed with the intention to conserve the area. They started off by raising awareness about the importance of these forests and the biodiversity in the national parks and highlighting how these projects would impact local populations. Their launch campaign was super successful because the team used art, music, and social media to engage people about the issue. The movement gained traction and their resistance started to see a glimpse of political change with local government bodies engaging in conversations with the campaigners. Their campaign also won the Sanctuary Asia Wildlife Service Awards in 2021.

Image Courtesy: Bianca Ballantyne, Rohan Dahotre

Nandini Velho, wildlife researcher and a volunteer with My Mollem, said, “Our campaign began on June 5, 2020, World Environment Day, involving an extremely diverse group of people –– artists, musicians, filmmakers, architects, researchers, lawyers, conservationists and people from all walks of life; so that it wasn’t just scientists talking to scientists, but a conversation happening across the board. For example, an artist would say, ‘Mollem is my drawing board.’ The diversity enabled us to use a lens we hadn’t captured before and as a result, it became such a strong, sustained citizen campaign.”

The power of the people prevailed gloriously and this year in an uplifting ruling, the Supreme Court cancelled all three projects upon the recommendations of the Central Empowered Committee. The court also made the crucial clearance granted for the projects by the National Board for Wildlife irrelevant. This massive victory for the citizens of Goa and environmentalists and activists around the nation is a result of Amche Mollem, the campaign that made itself heard by the CEC and influenced their reports.

There’s a lesson to be learnt from the impact the people of this campaign have had on the highest branches of our government. Decisions regarding infrastructure projects are never a public concern and are believed to be above citizens’ choices even if they affect the people the most. Amche Mollem, with its collaborative efforts, has changed that for the better. The journey Goa has taken in the last 2 years is an example of the power of art and its capacity for social reform.

French visual artist Henri Matisse said that creativity takes courage. Often the courage we think we lack in bringing about social change comes to us in the form of artistic inspiration. There’s nothing as infectious as a piece of art that carries a message you connect to. In the contemporary world governed by gargantuan capitalistic entities, our artistic endeavours remain a powerful tool to protect and nurture everything that matters to mankind, including our values, our culture, and our planet.

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